June 08, 2007 02:00am
ONE way to keep people committed to a war is to tell them the skies will fall if they quit and go home.Coalition leaders George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard have pushed that line on Iraq for years.
Nevertheless, the war in Iraq is clearly lost, on the ground and in the court of American public opinion, and the pullout will probably begin about 10 minutes after the new US president is inaugurated in January 2009.
That's only 18 months from now, so it's time to think about what happens next.
The American withdrawal will not stop with Iraq.
Iran is going to be the new great power in the region and the little Arab oil sheikdoms on the opposite side of the Gulf will probably close down the US bases on their soil in order to keep Iran sweet.
Moreover, there will be huge resistance in the United States to any more military adventures in the Middle East.
So, for the first time in 40 years, the status quo in the Middle East will not be backed by a US military guarantee.
That will terrify the regimes in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which depend heavily on US backing and are not tremendously popular with their own people.
The opposition in all these countries is mainly Islamist and in some cases it is quite extreme.
It is quite possible one or two of the obedient, pro-Western regimes will be overthrown.
We are not talking about Bush's favourite nightmare of an Islamic empire stretching from Spain to Indonesia.
But we could be talking about the Muslim Brotherhood gaining power in Egypt, or even about the Islamic Republic of Arabia.
But whichever way they jump, it's unlikely to harm the West. Even if a major oil-exporting country should fall under Islamist rule, so what?
These countries export oil because they need the money to feed their people and they'll still need the money, no matter who is running them.
Iran may call the US the Great Satan, but it sells every barrel of oil it can pump.
The big loser, strategically speaking, is Israel because some of the Arab governments around it may be replaced by Islamist regimes that have no interest in peace treaties.
The Palestinians are giving up hope of a negotiated peace and shifting their support to the rejectionists of Hamas.
Even the unquestioning and unlimited support of the US is eroding as the American public grows impatient with all things Middle Eastern.
Israel faces no risk of military defeat, but the next 20 years will probably be a lot harder.
Iraq could just break up into three pieces: Kurds, Shia Arabs and Sunni Arabs, but that is far from certain.
One of the two wars raging in the country, the Sunni Arab insurgency against foreign forces, will end automatically when they pull out.
The other war between Sunni and Shia Arabs may continue and it could even get worse.
But it could also die down because the departure of the foreigners will lessen the appeal of the extremists on both sides.
Islamist terrorism will almost certainly die down once Western troops leave the Middle East. The conviction that the West was waging a war against Islam, however mistaken, was the main driving force behind the attacks in Bali, Madrid and London.
The invasion of Iraq was America's biggest foreign policy blunder since Vietnam, but just as then, the consequences for the West of US military defeat in Iraq are likely to be less than people expect.
Five years from now, the oil will still be flowing, terrorism will be a minor nuisance and America's reputation will have recovered.
Unless, of course, the Bush administration decides to attack Iran. Then the heavens really would fall.
Gwynne Dyer is a journalist and broadcaster whose latest book, The Mess They Made: The Middle East After Iraq, is published by Scribe (rrp $27.95)